Nordic research needs a new boost

Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Bertel Haarder

Nordic research needs a new boost

22.02.2016
Status: Developing Nordic research cooperation lies at the heart of NordForsk’s activities. We have asked two former ministers of education and Nordic cooperation – the experienced Danish politician Bertel Haarder and the young Icelandic politician Katrín Jakobsdóttir – to look back over the last decade as well as 10 years into the future. Here are their views of the past and their hopes for the future.

What have been the defining features of Nordic research cooperation in the past 10 years? 

Katrín JakobsdóttirJakobsdóttir: ‘The Top-level Research Initiative is the clearest manifestation of Nordic research cooperation in the last decade. Nordic research cooperation was given greater focus because the prime ministers took the initiative and set aside very ample funding for a few designated areas. I think that the political focus created a Nordic advantage in research cooperation. It was an extremely important initiative.’

Haarder: ‘The Danish prime minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was highly committed to the Top-level Research Initiative. I remember that in 2008 we met in the town of Riksgränsen in northern Sweden along the border with Norway in minus 25-degree weather, and dinner was served outside on a frozen lake. Inside in the warmth sat all of the Nordic prime ministers, discussing research policy. Actually they didn’t talk; they listened. Then Anders Fogh Rasmussen concluded that we should inject new life into the Nordic budgets and free up funding for joint Nordic research. There was talk of large sums, up to DKK 100 million per year. Halldór Ásgrímsson was the secretary general for the Nordic Council of Ministers and in charge of implementing the initiative. The director of Microsoft Denmark was with us up there, and I think the director for Novo Nordisk as well. The idea was to give a boost to Nordic research cooperation. And I think there is a great need for a new push, if I may be perfectly honest.’

Jakobsdóttir: ‘It’s important because we found that we got a lot out of working together, that we gained more than each country could achieve on its own. I agree with Bertel that a new push is needed, because it’s obvious that the world is changing dramatically from a geopolitical perspective, and we must take care not to lose our advantage in research and innovation. In Iceland, which has only 320 000 inhabitants, we feel strongly that it has been extremely beneficial for us to participate in Nordic cooperation. In the big picture, all of the Nordic countries are small in size. I think everyone benefits from being part of a larger community.’

Bertel HaarderHaarder: ‘But we politicians are often not expressly involved in promoting a Nordic focus. I think the reason is that everyone feels an affinity towards the Nordic community. Everyone supports it – which is why it doesn’t make the news. It’s frustrating.’

Jakobsdóttir: ‘My experience of Nordic cooperation is that research has been given a more important position in the wake of the Top-level Research Initiative and that the research sector plays a more pivotal role than previously. In my view, this is a very positive shift. We have greater influence when we work together – I totally agree with you about that, Bertel – and this applies to all aspects of Nordic cooperation, not just research. But politicians know of course that supporting Nordic cooperation isn’t what gets us elected. That isn’t what gets us a wide number of votes.’

‘I think that at the Nordic Council’s annual meeting in the autumn, the Nordic prime ministers should ask their research ministers to discuss how to increase the added value of Nordic research cooperation by renewing the Top-level Research Initiative.’ Bertel Haarder

Haarder: ‘No, we don’t win elections by campaigning for a Nordic focus, unfortunately!’

 ‘My experience of Nordic cooperation is that research has been given a more important position in the wake of the Top-level Research Initiative and that the research sector plays a more pivotal role than previously. In my view, this is a very positive shift.’ Katrín Jakobsdóttir

If you look 10 years ahead, what will be the best possible political framework for Nordic research cooperation? 

Jakobsdóttir: ‘As Bertel said, I think it’s important to note that we need some new momentum. It would be good to see the prime ministers focus on taking the next steps in the research and innovation sphere. If we are going to get the most out of the potential, we will need political clout, so it will be important to get the prime ministers to set the stage for how to proceed in the upcoming 10 years.’

Haarder: ‘I think that at the Nordic Council’s annual meeting in the autumn, the Nordic prime ministers should ask their research ministers to discuss how to increase the added value of Nordic research cooperation by renewing the Top-level Research Initiative and by reviewing important areas of research so we can see if there is overlap and if there are obvious gains to be made from cooperation. If we can get more for the same amount of money. The prime ministers could also encourage their respective research funds to pool some of their means in joint Nordic initiatives instead of only accepting grant applications from their national researchers.’

Jakobsdóttir: ‘The prime ministers should keep research well within their sights, because in the context of competitiveness, a favourable outcome will be dependent on the success of our research and innovation. So this should be a top priority for everyone, across party lines and national borders. 

In general, I think that the key to Nordic cooperation is our common linguistic heritage. Because cooperation is based on the culture and history we share. I would like to see more Nordic interdisciplinary research cooperation on language and technology, because technology is advancing so rapidly today and will do so in the years and decades to come – and we must find ways to enable everyone to keep using their Nordic languages in connection with new technological opportunities.’

Haarder: ‘Our ability to understand each other is such a gift! A thousand years ago we were one culture, which is why we remain so alike. Alicia Adams, the curator for the Nordic arts festival in Washington, D.C., Nordic Cool, said at the conclusion of the festival that she had searched for differences in the Nordic countries for two years, and she did not find a single one. This is how we appear to outsiders. We can easily see the differences ourselves, but viewed from the outside, we look very much the same.’

How can NordForsk make a difference in future cooperation? 

Bertel Haarder

Haarder: ‘I think that NordForsk needs to drop its natural reserve and be more extroverted, more visible. I am very well aware that this is something we can always say and that it’s easier said than done. But I would still like to see it happen.

As we know, all of the Nordic countries participate in EU research cooperation. We could work together more on submitting proposals for research programmes. And when the programmes are underway, we could encourage talented people from universities and companies to seek funding for projects that encompass enough countries to qualify them for EU grants. This could clearly comprise a component of Nordic research cooperation, and here NordForsk could help by identifying research areas. The other countries will be interested in hearing what the Nordic countries are doing because they have enormous respect for us. We don’t do this enough at present because we suffer from a small-nation mentality, which is passé. Together we are not small.’

‘My experience of Nordic cooperation is that research has been given a more important position in the wake of the Top-level Research Initiative and that the research sector plays a more pivotal role than previously. In my view, this is a very positive shift.’ Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Jakobsdóttir: ‘For example, all of us want a healthcare system that works, and we want technological possibilities. This won’t happen if we don’t have skilled researchers who work closely together. When a volcano erupted on Iceland, for instance, everyone suddenly got very interested in advancing research because they saw that the eruption had ramifications far beyond Iceland.

I also think it’s important to involve the universities more in Nordic cooperation. We have a collaboration between the rectors of the Nordic universities, and we could probably capitalise more on this.’

Haarder: ‘It’s possible that NordForsk could serve as a think-tank which could inspire universities and research institutions to engage in joint initiatives. We must ensure that Nordic cooperation does not lead to overlap. That would be the worst thing that could happen. It is crucial to encourage the existing institutions to cooperate in the typically pragmatic Nordic fashion, i.e. not with a lot of bureaucracy, but by establishing networks so that there is greater awareness in Trondheim about what is taking place in Reykjavik, Malmø and Copenhagen in a given field. An excellent example of this is the European Spallation Source super-microscope which the Swedes and Danes are currently building as a joint effort in Lund. This is a fantastic collaboration. Just think, Denmark is investing hundreds of millions of kroner in a project located in Sweden! This is the kind of thing we need more of.’ 

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, born 1976, Icelandic Minister of Education, Science and Culture, and Minister of Nordic Cooperation, 2009–2013. Head of the Left-Green Movement of Iceland. 

Bertel Haarder, born 1944, Danish Minister for Culture and Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs since 2015.  Previously served as Minister for Education, Minister for the Interior and Health, and Minister for Nordic Cooperation, among other posts, and as President of the Nordic Council. Member of Venstre, the Liberal Party.

The interview is published in NordForsk Magazine



Text: Linn Hoff Jensen

Photo: NordForsk/Kim Wendt

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